GRAHAM, Wash. — If time heals all wounds, two decades are clearly not enough to mend the most profoundly painful memories many first responders carried away from the chaos of ground zero in New York.
“We walked into that site and we’re just like, ‘Oh my God,’” said retired King County Medic One EMT Bill Engler, describing his first glance at the staggering ruins and the settling dust. “Pictures do not do it any justice. The immensity of it was unbelievable.”
Engler and his crew from the Washington State Disaster Medical Assistance Team were deployed as the search teams were still combing through the rubble of partially collapsed buildings. It was Engler’s job to treat the injuries of the thousands of workers tirelessly digging by hand through jagged ruins.
“There were desks hanging out,” he said. “Teetering over the edge there’s chairs, when the wind blows there’s papers and dust that fly out of those places.”
The death and damage were still hanging heavily in the air where the world changed forever in the span of only minutes.
2,753 people would be missing within seconds. Their families and friends approached Bill and his team to find them.
“They’d knock on the bus windows and you’d look at them, they’d be handing you pictures, ‘Can you look for my brother, my husband, my mom,’ whoever it happened to be, ‘Can you please look for them?’ And we knew there was nobody alive,” he said. “We weren’t going to find them.”
40,000 workers and volunteers like Bill worked unceasingly, surrounded by danger.
“As we’re standing there, all the sudden we hear this rumbling and the whole ground started shaking, and all the dust is coming down on top of us, and we thought the building was going to fall on us,” Engler said. “There was nowhere to go. So, we just stood there.”
Twenty years later, doctors traced daily exposure to toxic dust and chemicals to 24,000 documented cases of cancer correlated to the hazards of ground zero. Engler is living with one of those cases.
“When I developed the cancer, my doctor sent all the information back to the people back east and they looked at all the information and said ‘Yeah, this is one of the ones we’re looking for.’”
Engler was also diagnosed with a reactive airway disease after returning home to Graham, but when he shows people a mangled piece of metal from the top of the north tower, a chunk of what was a stately granite floor, and the burned reminders of another business day torn from the pages of time, he says he’d do it all over again.
“I’m still better off than a lot of other people,” Engler said. “I have no complaints.”
A photograph of Engler attaching the Washington State flag to a ground zero crane inspired a watercolor artist to paint the scene. She presented the original to Engler. Two decades later, Engler believes the inspiration of this dark anniversary should come from the contributions of everyday people who dropped everything and gave their time.
“I think that’s got to be pushed out there so people understand it,” he said. “A lot of people stepped up to help there. I think that’s very important.”
Engler suggested a random act of service to another person may the best way to remember, to show support for the immense sacrifice made by so many, on a day filled with heavy hearts and indelible memories.
“Whether it be five minutes or five days, five hours, it’s still the thought that they are doing something,” said Engler, citing the painful scenes which he can still see clearly in his memories to this day. “They’re going to be with you forever.”
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